A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from Jack@anyandalltextbooks.com (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,
Jack

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

Problem-Based Learning: It Doesn’t Have to Be High Tech

Startup Stock Photos

Before I get into the topic at hand, let me apologize for the hiatus in our blog posts. As the fall semester and preparations for the annual Association for Business Communication conference got underway, Paula and I were both pulled under in a torrent of work.

But we’re back! And we’ve been collecting interesting topics and useful ideas for you.

Today’s topic, problem-based learning, was sparked by a session at the ABC conference that featured past winners of ABC’s Outstanding Teacher Award.

What Is It?

It’s all the rage, and it’s something we’ve been doing in bcomm for decades. It’s essentially using most of your class time for interactive problem-solving rather than lecture (click here to read just one of many available definitions).

Why Do It?

The short answer is that it generates better learning—certainly in an area such as bcomm, where being able to analyze and solve messy problems with indeterminate borders/participants is central. A less obvious but also compelling answer is that it encourages the weaker, less prepared, and/or shy students to participate more in class, as a recent opinion piece in The New York Times pointed out.

How Should We Do It?

Probably the most elaborate, time-intensive method is to use what people refer to as “the flipped classroom,” which involves posting learning material online and testing students on it, and then using class time for actual work on a communication problem. Paula gets great results with this method–and her online materials are awesome.

You don’t have to go all out, though, to reap the advantages of problem-based learning. Maybe someday I’ll have cool online activities like Paula’s, but for now, I quiz students on the assigned readings and, in going over the quiz, quickly review the key concepts for the chapter. That makes the students responsible for getting prepared for class, and it leaves about three-fourths of our class time for working on the current problem-based assignment.

But don’t underestimate the value of impromptu discussion of real bcomm problems that have come up in the news or in your own life. Early this semester, I was at my wits end trying to get a shoe store to return my phone calls about a pair of shoes that I’d paid for but had never received. Because this was on my mind when I went in to teach my Writing for Business class, I started the class by sharing my problem and asking the students what I should do. Their first thought was that I should just go to the shoe store, but since it’s about 30 miles away, I said I was looking for another solution. How about writing the corporate office? That sounded promising. But what medium should I use? Should I copy the store on the message? Should I mention in the message that the store needs a better system for keeping track of back orders that have been paid for?

Even the more lackadaisical students perked up when we were considering these questions about this real problem. So, since then, I’ve come in a few more times with communication situations that are good fodder for analysis. (P.S. The manager of the shoe store finally called me and gave me my refund—but I was right on the verge of writing that letter!)

In the session on problem-based learning at ABC, David Victor shared a group project that involves feedback from working professionals. He divides students into groups and has them analyze a cross-cultural communication problem. They generate possible solutions and then discuss/compare them. But the extra twist is that David sends the proposed solutions to several executives to evaluate. The most eye-opening part of the project is that the executives don’t agree, either, on any one best solution. It’s a great lesson on the roles that wisdom, judgment, and perspective play in the problem-solving process.

You probably already base your course largely on problem solving. Go even further in that direction! It’ll promote better learning and engagement for everyone—even the instructor.

What Was Your Best Teaching Insight of the Summer?

Before we go any further, I just want to make clear that I’m really asking! So please take a few moments to share your response to the question in this post’s title.

My best teaching insight this summer came when I was doing research on the generation that comprises most of our students—which is to say Gen Y, Millennials, twenty-somethings, typical college-age students, or whatever you want to call them.

I’m pretty sure I browsed every book that has been written on managing this cohort, as well as numerous articles and blog posts. But in only one of these sources did I see an extended emphasis on a trait that distinguishes this group from the Boomer generation (less so from Gen Xers): these folks grew up playing video games.

I know—not exactly a news flash. But have you really thought about how hours of gaming may have shaped their views of themselves, the workplace, and reality in general?

Management consultants John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade have. In fact, to gauge the extent to which gaming may have influenced young businesspeople’s attitudes and problem-solving strategies, they conducted a study involving a survey of over 2,000 businesspeople and interviews with over 200 people (young adults, parents, psychologists, and others, in addition to business people). The results were published in 2006 in The Kids Are Alright: How the Gamer Generation Is Changing the Workplace.

Here are some of the main gamer attitudes discussed by Beck and Wade, along with my thoughts about how we might adapt our teaching accordingly:

“Everyone can succeed.” If you’re able to play long and hard enough, you can beat almost any game. The rules are clear, the boundaries are definite, and the “hero” can eventually win (otherwise, the game won’t sell). There are even maps and strategy guides to consult. How unlike the workplace this is! Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a young man who complained that his bcomm teacher gave him a B+ when he’d made As in all his hard finance courses. We really need to explain to our students why effective business communication is a whole different “game” from their other courses, which tend to focus on concepts or puzzle-solving rather than on complex, ill-defined problem solving (the kind that involves people).

“You gotta play the odds.” If gamers experience serious setbacks and/or decide they don’t like a game, they just look for another game. Life is not like this, and neither is the workplace! Some serious setbacks actually have lasting consequences, and one cannot always just go find another job (especially if no one in the workplace you just left can be counted on to put in a good word for you). If we can help our students appreciate this, we will boost their professionalism, and they may understand better what is at stake when they communicate on the job.

“Kill bosses, trust strategy guides.” I laughed out loud when I read this one. My son, a Gen Yer, has been beating bosses his whole life in the gaming world . . . but I never actually put this together with the fact that one’s superiors on the job are called “bosses.” According to the literature, Gen Yers tend to treat bosses too much as substitute parents—but they also have a tendency to view bosses (and sometimes their teachers?) as obstacles to be passed on the way to greater success. We need to give our students explicit advice about what bosses are likely to expect and why, and about how to communicate successfully with them.

“Watch the map.” Many video games have on-screen maps that show you where you can go, where you now are, and who’s ahead or behind you. Games also often have meters (colored bars) that indicate how much power you have left, how much power your enemy has left, and so forth. The lesson for us: Our twenty-something students LOVE to know where they stand, and they want a clear path to success. While teaching bcom requires that we give our students decision-making room when they are solving a communication problem, we can try to make the goals and guidelines as clear as possible. Explaining how an assignment builds on the previous ones and providing grading rubrics will also appeal to these students.

“Can’t see it? Ignore it.” In games, there are no completely surprising enemies. And even if they come out at surprising times, they’re beatable. As Beck and Wade say, “That’s quite a contrast to human organizations, whether families, companies, or communities, where you may be weakened or frustrated by decisions from people you can’t confront” (p. xvi). Our students need to be encouraged to do all they can to see the big picture and to try to anticipate all the possible effects of any act of communication.

The book has many, many more insights. I encourage you to browse through it and see if relatively simple changes in your teaching will enhance your younger students’ learning and attitudes.

Now it’s your turn. What new insight are you taking advantage of in this new school year?

Slowing Down the Bcomm Classroom with Mindfulness

Who doesn’t find it challenging these days to gain and keep students’ attention?

They are bombarded by stimuli during practically every waking moment. Their phones and tablets have become part of who they are and how they interact with the world. Multitasking is a way of life for them.

All this attention to stimuli has generated a need for such stimuli. If they’re not being engaged or entertained, our students move on to something else. Mental quiet space is in short supply in the classroom as well as in today’s workplaces.

And a stimulated brain is a problem because . . . ?

A growing body of literature points out the costs of a constantly busy mind. According to an article in Training + Development magazine, “the U.S. Department of Health attributes 70 percent of work-related physical and mental complaints to stress. And health insurance claims related to stress are estimated to cost organizations more than $300 billion yearly.”*

But the costs are material, too. According to the American Psychological Association (cited in the same article), “The inability to focus for even 10 minutes on any one thing at a time may be costing [employees] 20 to 40 percent in terms of efficiency and productivity.”

So, what’s the relevance to bcomm?

Not everything we teach or have our students do requires sustained attention. But a lot of it does. Let’s say you’re helping the class think through how to approach a persuasive-message situation. Is it possible for them to do a good job if they’re looking at their phones, tuning out after 5 minutes, or thinking of what to have for lunch after class?

To get into the readers’ shoes, to generate benefits that will appeal to them, to envision a possible design for the message . . . these activities require a lower idle speed, a focused mind, and patience. The “answers” to a complex problem don’t come quickly.

At the Association for Business Communication meeting a few weeks ago, I attended a session in which teachers shared their innovative ideas for integrating technology into the bcom classroom. It was a great session—but, interestingly, the most striking idea I came away with didn’t have to do with technology. It was something Abram Anders said about how he gets his class to generate topics for their group project.

Abram doesn’t start with brainstorming, with questions, with prompts. He starts with silence.

He has the class sit quietly for a few moments and clear their minds first. And I gathered from his talk that he often has his students do this before they begin an assignment.

Among the benefits of mindfulness, according to the Training +Development article, are . . .

  • Improved mental focus and less mind wandering
  • An extended attention span
  • Avoidance of black-and-white thinking

These can all benefit communication problem solving.

How can we help our students become more mindful?

If you Google “mindfulness at work,” you’ll find many resources for helping students resist the craving for constant stimulation (see this article in Forbes, for example). Mindfulness doesn’t require sitting in a quiet room on a meditation pillow for an hour; small things, like taking just a few moments to “do nothing,” can make a better space for focused analysis, creativity—and learning.

*Erika Tierney Garms, “Practicing Mindful Leadership,” Mar. 2013: 32-35. Click here to read an online version.

The Evidence Is Mounting: What You Can Do Is More Important than What You Know

The shift from a manufacturing-based to an information-based economy has created an unprecedented need for employees who are multi-skilled and adaptable. It has taken a while for higher education to catch up to this reality, but a 2013 study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) can help us keep moving in the right direction.

The researchers surveyed business and nonprofit leaders to ask what they look for in job applicants and how colleges and universities can better prepare graduates for the current demands of the workplace. Of particular relevance to us in bcomm is the finding that the applicant’s “cross-cutting capacities” are more important to employers than his or her choice of major.

Specifically (quoting from the report),

  • Nearly all those surveyed (93%) agree, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
  • More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
  • More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.

The respondents recommend that schools help develop the needed competencies by requiring more coursework in the liberal arts and sciences and by giving students multiple types of opportunities for hands-on learning (e.g., collaborative projects and problem-solving assignments).

If you’re like me, you nodded your head when you read each point above, thinking “Yep—that’s what we do in bcomm!”

So carry on with the real-world assignments, the collaborative projects, the focus on adapting to audience and context, the study of other cultures’ values, and everything else we do that requires students to think and apply. The need for the skills we teach has never been greater.

The Bonuses of Assignments with Real Clients

This semester I was reminded anew of the advantages of giving my Writing for Business students real assignments—that is, assignments for real readers in real organizations to help solve real problems.

The class had been allowed to generate their own ideas for group report projects, and one group had chosen to find out how students in the recently phased-out Hospitality Management (HM) major felt about the way the phase-out had been handled. In helping this group tackle its assignment, the class discussed the following questions (each followed by the answer we decided on):

What should the purpose of the study be? Just to let the HM majors vent? Or something more constructive? We decided that presenting a report whose purpose was simply to state what hadn’t gone well wouldn’t achieve anything. Since the goal was to help an organization solve a problem, the authors needed a better thought-out, more reader-centered purpose. We agreed that the purpose should be to “help UC conduct phase-outs more effectively.”

Who should the reader(s) be? The undergraduate business dean? But it was unlikely that he would be undertaking many more phase-outs. And he already knew of many of the phase-out snags. We finally decided, after some research, that the vice provost in charge of academic planning for the university would be the most appropriate primary reader for our report.

Should we contact the reader before sending her the report, or just let her receive it cold in the campus mail? Though it was somewhat daunting to have to email a vice provost and describe the project, the group came to agree that they’d better let her in on what they were doing and invite her to offer any suggestions she had.

How should we frame the report in such a way that it appears useful, not just critical? It was tricky that the study would involve only one phased-out major. How useful could the study of one such major be? We decided that we would call the report “a case study.” That way, it would be clear that the data were for only one case but would suggest general points that could be applied to other cases. We also worked with some potential sample sentences to see how to turn overly negative wording into more neutral or even positive wording.

Should anyone else get a copy of the report? This generated our most intense discussion yet. I asked if the undergraduate business dean shouldn’t get a courtesy copy; The HM majors in the class said he didn’t need one since he was already quite familiar with the topic. “What if the vice provost receives your report and then wants to talk to him about it?” I asked. “Won’t he feel blindsided, or left out, or told on?” Reluctantly, the group realized that he must receive a copy of the report as well, so we decided that they would send him a copy (with a polite cover letter) when they sent the vice provost her copy. (I’m still not sure that was the ideal decision.)

The other groups had similar logistical and political issues to deal with. For example, one group was conducting an employee-satisfaction survey at a place where one of the group members worked, so the group needed to think carefully about how to involve the management and receive their blessing for the study.  Another group was researching how a nearby blood center could get more blood donations from students, so they needed to be careful to give due credit to the efforts the center had already made in this direction.

 Simulations (realistic case studies) can be very educational, particularly if they’re designed to help students learn certain skills—e.g., how to graph numerical data and incorporate it into a report, or how apply the basic plan for a negative-news or sales message. But they’re not likely to engage students as deeply in issues related to audience, purpose, and tone as real assignments are. Perhaps for this reason, my students do much better work on projects for real readers.

 Are you getting similar payoffs from having your class prepare their work for real clients? Do you have a great assignment to share or success story to tell? Or pitfalls to warn about? We’d love to hear your ideas.

The Ethics of “Genre Bending” in BComm

Recently my husband showed me a letter he’d received from the fundraising staff of a university. It graciously thanked him for his recent promise of a contribution (a promise he’d made when contacted by phone), and it described the important goals that the money would help support. While it was a thank-you letter on the surface, the main effect of the message was to remind my husband that he still needed to send in the money.

He and I both felt that the letter showed brilliant decision making on the writer’s part. Casting the message as a thank you achieved the purpose of jogging his memory without nagging him, and it made him feel even better about his contribution.

This little event made me reflect on a question I sometimes think about when teaching bcomm: under what circumstances is it ethical to create a message that looks like one genre but is, in effect, another?

Let’s contrast the opening example I gave with a different one (also real). My son received a letter in a window envelope on which was written in scroll-looking type “Your Scholarship Information is Enclosed.” The sender, as indicated on the return address, was “Scholarship Information Center.” The contents turned out bo be a brochure about scholarship opportunities offered by the Army National Guard–or, from my perspective, a recruitment brochure.

In contrast to the first example, this one seemed to me to border on the unethical. How do we make–and, more importantly, help our students make–the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate use of what I call “genre bending”?

To tease out some criteria, let’s consider a strategy we sometimes see used and even sometimes recommend: to reconceive a “bad news” message as some other kind of message (e.g., a problem-solving message, a persausive message, or even a good news message).

I would suggest the following test questions:

  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form mislead the reader in any way?
  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form in any way hinder the reader’s ability to make a conscious, well-informed decision?
  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form feel like dissembling (i.e., feel like something of a trick) to the writer?
  • Is it a strain for the writer him/herself to perceive what he or she is writing about in the way that the more potentially effective form would encourage the reader to perceive it?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, I’d say that the writer’s ethics and sincerity are in question. In such cases, the more ethical act is probably to do one’s best with the genre that first presented itself as the logical one.

Examples of genre bending abound in our culture–from magazine sales letters that are formatted like invoices to newspaper articles that are actually press releases written by companies’ PR departments. Our students need to think carefully before engaging in this practice. Please share any strategies or thoughts you have about helping them do so.